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Ethics in Gaming 2.0

Yehuda Berlinger

July, 2005

Playing Games Without Buying Them

In this article I address the issue of playing commercial games without buying them. There are three ways to do this:

  1. Purchase the game used.
  2. Play someone else's copy.
  3. Create a mock-up of the game for playing purposes.

Caveats: I am not a lawyer, although I have done some research on the legal aspects of copying for the purposes of this article. Also, the issues of copyrights and patents cross many areas of philosophical disciplines, including the philosophy of ethics, of politics and government, and of economics. I can't cover all of these subjects in detail.

Purchasing Used

A few people think that purchasing a game used is somehow depriving the author of rightful income. This may be so but it does not mean that it is unethical to do so.

Some people want new games when they first come out. The remainder of the world is happy to purchase games used or worn copies at a later date. Newness is generally a luxury of the wealthy. Reasonable authors and publishers expect their compensation to be from new sales only, and calculate their incentive to produce the game accordingly.

The legal principle that recognizes this is called "first-sale", which specifies that after a person has bought an item, he or she is free to do with it what he or she wants, with the exception of copying it. In particular, the purchaser may resell it. First-sale is an important principle that asserts that a sale is truly a sale—once I buy an item, it is mine.

Publishers can introduce incentives to purchase the game new, such as offering an access code to an online group with the sale of the game, or offering a free item with a proof of purchase from the game box. However, a publisher should make no restrictions about resale of the game itself, which should remain playable even without the free incentive. (This is purely an opinion. As can be seen from the software and music industries, trying to control the replayability or resale of durable goods can lead to a big mess of consumer confusion and anger. I am not talking about the economic validity of doing this, I am suggesting that this is essentially an attempt to scrap first-sale, fair-use, as well as a number of other important legal and ethical principles.)

Playing Other's Copies of the Game

There is no problem with a gaming group agreeing to divide the ownership of games among the participants so that only one copy of each game need be purchased. It is the nature of multi-player games that more than one person can enjoy himself or herself with one particular copy. There still remains an incentive for each member of a group to acquire their own copy—to play outside the group, if the owning player leaves the group, etc.

Playing games provided by the copyright holder, whether online or at a convention, is also acceptable, even if you don't intend to purchase the game. The publisher deliberately assumes this risk, hoping to build a community and/or publicity.

Creating a Mock-Up of the Game

Some people compare copying a game to copying music, a movie, or a book. This is a false comparison. A more apt comparison is to the copying of a car engine.

Copying a piece of music, a movie, or a book creates an exact copy of the item. Copying a game, or a car engine, does not. It is equivalent to singing a song into a tape, so that you can listen to it whenever you want. The copyright on a game only prevents you from producing the exact same game, that is, with the same rules, artwork, etc. It is fair to say that we should not violate this copyright; that is, one should not download the graphics, photocopy the rulebook, etc. to create exact copies of the art or text.

The problem is that games are (generally) not patented. Legally, we can create a mockup of a game to play for our own enjoyment. The question is: should we grant game producers automatic "moral" patents on their games, even if they have not obtained legal patents?

On the pro-copy side, we have the following arguments:

  • Copying lets you try a game before purchase. If copying is not allowed, you may not try it, and may never purchase it.
  • Copying may lead others to purchase, even if you don't.
  • It may also lead others to buy other games by the same designer and/or publisher, even if the game itself is not purchased.
  • Playing a copied game is no different than taking a guitar riff and playing it on your guitar. The idea has become public property, and enforcing a restriction on an idea is unnatural.

On the con-side:

  • The above arguments are simply justifications to save money.
  • Games are often only good for so many plays, and playing a copied version will ultimately dissuade you from purchasing the game.
  • Many people playing non-purchased games provides disincentives for creators to produce games that are easily copy-able.
  • Playing without the official artwork and components may provide a sub-standard playing experience, which is a disservice to the designer and publisher.

I find the pro-copy arguments more persuasive, but with a caveat. It is not unethical to cook something at home after seeing it in a grocery store or restaurant. You have no obligation to buy the item in the store; you do so only for reasons of price, taste, loyalty, and/or convenience. Why should games be any different?

As someone getting into designing myself, I cannot imagine telling someone that they should not play my games unless they pay me for objects that are, essentially, unnecessary to them. It is up to me, as a designer or publisher, to find ways to translate my work into profitability; I cannot assume that simply because I have worked, that others owe me money for this. I must produce something that people want to purchase.

The caveat is, if you enjoy a game, you should communicate this to the publisher or designer, either directly by telling them, or indirectly by buying their games.

- Yehuda Berlinger

If this topic is of interest, you might consider reading Shannon Appelcline's articles on copyright, trademarks and patents at:

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